The Olympus XA is the perfect film camera for a beginner like me

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I’ve wanted to learn about film photography for a while now, but the convenience of my iPhone camera has always held me back. It’s still there, in my pocket – and what film camera could be so easy to carry around with me?

Until recently, my experience with film cameras was limited to big second-hand SLRs and a Fujifilm Instax Wide that was much heavier than it was worth. This, I thought, was the trade-off: you can take gorgeous, lush photos, but only if you’re willing to carry bulky gear to do it. Anything else would be expensive (the Contax T2 can cost over $1000 on eBay) or provide little camera control.

Then I found the Olympus XA. (Many thanks to the camera geeks at Reddit for the recommendation.) It’s a 35mm rangefinder with a great lens – and it fits in my pocket, too.

Equipment – The XA, which Olympus first launched in 1979, is actually the first in a series of film cameras; the XA1, XA2, XA3 and XA4 all followed in the footsteps of the original with slight but significant tweaks. We are talking here about the XA (not the XA1… confusing, I know), the first version of the series and the only true rangefinder in the series.

The complete Olympus XA range, deconstructed.Austin Calhoon Photography / Wikipedia

Every XA-series camera uses this neat hardware construction which is partly responsible for its extremely small footprint. When not in use, the lens is protected by a convex sliding dust cap, relieving the camera of a lens cap and thus keeping its chunky form factor.

I wasn’t sure what I would think of this sliding cover when I came across pictures of the camera itself. It’s quite weird. In practice, however, it’s a joy to use and a great conversation starter.

What really drew me to the original XA over its siblings was the degree of control it offered the photographer. The XA includes an aperture control lever on the right front side of the body, while later models replaced this control with a few automatic settings.

The XA doesn’t have a built-in flash – again, a boon for its form factor – but the optional A11 flash is very easy to connect and disconnect depending on your lighting needs. It only adds to the width of the XA when connected.

The learning curve — I am new to using manual cameras. I’ve watched a few YouTube videos on the interplay between aperture, film speed, and shutter speed, but I’m new to the scene. So I wanted a camera that I could use for both practice and fun.

The XA strikes a sweet balance between the two. Focusing with the rangefinder is perhaps the steepest part of the learning curve, if you, like me, have never used one before. As far as rangefinders go, though, this one is quite forgiving and the distance markings on the focus dial are very useful for area focusing. The same goes for aperture control; its location makes it easy to adjust while watching how the built-in light meter changes shutter speed accordingly.

Focus with the rangefinder is perhaps the steepest part of the learning curve.

The community – The Olympus XA has a strong support system in the form of an active online community. Places like Reddit’s r/analog and r/AnalogCommunity are filled with people not only familiar with XA, but passionate about helping others learn how to use it. That’s unusual, for a decades-old device.

Here’s a quick example: When I first received my XA, I didn’t know how to load its film or its batteries. A quick Reddit search was all it took to get the camera up and running. (I had bought an old Minolta before this one and couldn’t even find enough information on it to know which batteries to buy.)

Since this is an older camera, you’ll want to check out eBay and other resale sites to purchase one. Be sure to check the description to make sure everything is in working order. Prices can vary from $75 to $150 depending on the quality of the device.

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